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States spend federal COVID aid on roads, buildings, seawalls

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States spend federal COVID aid on roads, buildings, seawalls

Standing 14 stories tall, the Docking State Office Building is one of Kansas’ largest and oldest state workplaces. It’s also largely vacant, despite a prime location across from the Capitol.

So Kansas officials are planning to spend $60 million of federal pandemic relief funds to help finance its demolition and replace it with a slimmed-down, three-story building designed to host meetings and events.

State officials categorized the project as a “public health service” in a report to the U.S. Treasury Department laying out their plans for the money. Though that may be a stretch, it’s likely fine under the American Rescue Plan act — a sweeping law signed by President Joe Biden last year that provides broad flexibility for $350 billion of aid to states and local governments.

The aid was promoted by Democrats in Congress as an unprecedented infusion for cash-strapped governments to respond to the virus, rebuild their economies and shore up their finances. But it came as state tax revenues already were rebounding, leaving many states with record surpluses and enviable decisions about what to do with all the money.

Relatively little of the federal aid has gone toward traditional public health purposes, according to an Associated Press review of reports filed by all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Significantly more has gone toward public infrastructure. States are pouring money into water, sewer and high-speed internet projects, as specifically envisioned by the law. But the AP found that they’re also spending billions of dollars on roads, bridges, sidewalks, airports, rail lines and buildings at college campuses and government agencies — justifying all of it under the federal government’s generous flexibility.

“We didn’t need it, to be quite honest,” said Kansas House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, referring to the $1.6 billion the state received.

But the Docking building does need to come down, he said, and the new space for events and meetings could allow better social distancing during a COVID-19 resurgence or future pandemic.

If “the building itself could be used during a pandemic, then it somewhat justifies the use of ARPA funds for the renovation or infrastructure projects,” said Waymaster, a Republican.

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A Kansas preservationist group has asked a court to block the demolition, arguing that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration hasn’t followed proper procedures to tear down the 65-year-old structure that was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year.

“There’s some wrongheaded action going on here to demolish what really is a perfectly suitable building,” said Paul Post, a retired Topeka attorney and member of the Plains Modern preservationist group.

All states recently were required to file annual reports with the Treasury Department detailing their progress under the American Rescue Plan. The documents show states have planned expenditures for about three-fourths of their funds. up significantly from an initial slow pace.

The Treasury asked states to classify projects in seven general categories, with 83 subcategories. It can recoup funds if it determines by the end of 2026 that spending fell outside the law’s wide guidelines.

Governments reported more than $22 billion of planned expenditures for the Treasury’s infrastructure category of water, sewer and broadband. But the AP identified a total of about $36 billion for infrastructure projects — nearly one-quarter of all planned expenditures — when including roads, bridges, buildings and public works projects reported in other categories.

By contrast, governments reported less than $12 billion of planned expenditures in the Treasury’s public health category — even though it was broadly construed to also include such things as “community violence interventions,” substance use services and COVID-19 aid to small businesses.

Some state officials may have decided not to use the relief funds for public health because they had other federal funding streams for vaccines, testing and health initiatives. For example, a separate section of the American Rescue Plan provided nearly $8 billion for state and local health departments. But the large influx of funds may also have stirred concerns about sustainability.

Though public health has historically been underfunded, “a lot of health officials have struggled to get their policymakers and their bosses to commit to hiring people for the long-term because it’s one-time money,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Some states reported no public health expenditures with their discretionary American Rescue Plan funds. Those included Florida, which received the fourth largest allotment from the federal government. Florida instead devoted $1.8 billion for highway, $1.9 billion for water projects and more than $2.5 billion for construction and maintenance of public buildings, including the Capitol, university facilities and K-12 schools, according to the AP’s analysis.

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The state’s water initiatives include up to $700 million for a grant program to fight flooding associated with climate change. The city of Miami was awarded about $50 million for a half-dozen projects, including one that will nearly double the height of a sea wall in an area devastated by a storm surge from Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The goal of the project is “to protect the residences and the businesses from future storm surge and sea level rise,” said Sonia Brubaker, Miami’s chief resilience officer.

Louisiana also listed no planned expenditures in the Treasury’s public health category. But the state plans to spend $863 million on roads and bridges, $750 million on water and sewer infrastructure and $27 million for improvements to the domed stadium where the New Orleans Saints play football.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the stadium subsidy was critical “to keep that venue competitive.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, also defended $46 million of grants to upgrade grandstands, walkways, bathrooms and infrastructure at racetracks across his state. “Motorsports are part of the fabric of North Carolina,” he said earlier this year.

Alabama prisoners have sued the Treasury Department to try to stop the state from spending $400 million on prison construction. Though the state agues it’s OK under the Treasury’s flexible rules, the lawsuit contends it’s a “a gross and illegal misuse” of pandemic relief funds.

A coalition of more than two dozen construction, business and local government groups is pressing Congress to grant even more leeway to use pandemic aid on transportation projects.

“Having a good infrastructure that allows us all to live and thrive” ultimately “leads back into public health,” said Stan Brown, past president of the American Public Works Association.

Missouri, which has yet to categorize most of its projects, also is investing heavily in infrastructure by directing hundreds of millions of dollars to buildings at community colleges and public universities. The NextGen Precision Health initiative at the University of Missouri will get nearly $105 million for improvements that include finishing off the fourth floor of a new building named for retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

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“A lot of this was already going to happen,” although no specific timeline had been set, said university spokesperson Christian Basi. “Then COVID hits, and then ARPA funds are available. It’s coincidental odd timing, but it turned out to be a very, very helpful thing for us.”

Like Missouri, Utah categorized $90 million for a new mental health research facility as a replacement of lost revenue for government services. Construction is to begin next year on the building, which will host research on suicide and the effect of social isolation on children’s mental health, among other things.

The planned work aligns nicely with the intent of the federal aid, said Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah.

“A lot of what we’re doing is directly related to tackling issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic itself,” he said.

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri, and Harjai from Los Angeles. Harjai is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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